There’s a very good piece by David Aaronovitch in the Times (£) on how the Hillsborough disaster shouldn’t be seen purely as a result of police incompetence and negligence, but instead as the product of wider institutional failure and prejudice.

Aaronovitch identifies three contributory factors and one aggravating one’ – the three contributory factors being crumbing infrastructure and the absence of what is now called ‘health and safety’ culture; the violent sub-culture that had emerged amongst British football fans; and, finally, prejudice against football fans in general. Here’s Aaronovitch on that prejudice –

By 1989 the English football fan was pronounced, as a breed, to be scum. A presumption of guilt was made by politicians, authorities, press and by many ordinary people. So fans — all fans — became, by default, a disliked and even pathologised group. Consequently their comfort, their conditions, their civil liberties even, were regarded as moot. They could be herded, coerced, smacked about a bit sometimes, and anything could be believed about them. And then, when the bodies came to be identified, it was discovered that they were just people after all. Dads, daughters, lovers, sons.

Perhaps I’m too prone to reading a particular kind of parallel into everything I read, but this is, of course, highly reminiscent of the way ‘cyclists’ are presented in everyday British discourse – a ‘disliked and even pathologised group’ (check); subject to presumptions of guilt (check); their comfort and conditions regarded as moot (check); anything could be believed about them (check); and of course the appalling realisation that the victims weren’t ‘cyclists’ after all, but ordinary human beings.

Department for Transport research has captured these attitudes amongst the general public –

… a stereotype of cyclists in general does appear to exist among [other road users]. This stereotype is characterised by:

serious failures of attitude, including a generalised disregard for the law and a more specific lack of concern for the needs of other drivers; and

serious failures of competence and knowledge of the rules of the road.

This stereotype of cyclists is also linked to the fact that cyclists do not need to undertake training, are unlicensed and uninsured, and do not pay road taxes (at least not by virtue of the fact that they cycle).

Lawbreaking; scrounging; ‘they’ all dress the same and act the same; ‘they’ are self-righteous, and look down at you; and so on. I’m sure don’t need to run through all the clichés and stereotypes, the ones that are so prevalent cycle campaigners have wisely chosen to avoid even using the word ‘cyclist’ because of the negative connotations it carries. These attitudes and opinions are then used to legitimise claims that ‘cyclists’ don’t deserve any kind of ‘special treatment’ – i.e. cycling infrastructure – that would reduce risk of serious injury or death. The comfort and conditions of ‘cyclists’ regarded as moot.

The most recent (and typically appalling) example of this kind of stigmatisation appeared this week on the BBC, when Janet Street Porter was given a free rein to spew a stream of stereotypes. We are told that

cyclists breeze through the city with little regard for anyone else

and asked

why should cyclists get preferential treatment? What about the very young, the elderly, and the disabled?

The clear assumption here being that ‘cyclists’ aren’t like ordinary people; rather, a subset of society who stand in opposition to the most vulnerable.

Riding a bike is subject to few rules, and many London cyclists can’t even stick to those.

‘A pathologised group’. (Of course, this is in the same week that the CEO of Ryanair has said that people cycling should be taken out and shot.)

This kind of rhetoric poisons the well of public discourse to such an extent that it is contributing to lethal outcomes, just in the way the demonising of football fans as ‘hooligans’ partially contributed to disasters like Hillsborough. Just as ‘hooligans’ don’t deserve to be treated properly, with due concern for the safety, so ‘cyclists’ don’t deserve to be insulated from danger. To take only one example, witness a charming commenter who has ‘no sympathy’ for a 70 year old man left for dead, apparently because ‘they’ (and it’s always ‘they’) ‘get a kick’ riding far out from the edge. Of course.

Naturally, the sources of danger presented to ‘cyclists’  and ‘hooligans’  are very different, but the logic is identical. Just as ‘hooligans’ could be pushed around, squeezed through narrow gates, crammed onto the terraces, so ‘cyclists’ should get on the pavement, get on the road, get out of ‘our’ way, and frankly just disappear. Why on earth should ‘they’ get their own space?

And when the bodies appear, it turns out the people who are killed aren’t ‘hooligans’, or ‘cyclists’, but fathers, sons, mothers, daughters.

Just people. Not ‘hooligans’.

Someone cycling. Not a ‘cyclist’.

But attempts to stop ‘cyclists’ from being injured or killed collide, time and again, with the pervasive stereotype that ‘they’ are lawbreakers, that ‘they’ are dangerous, that designs to keep ‘them’ safe will be at the expense of ‘us’. Take the absurdity of an NHS trust – an NHS trust – launching a petition against cycling infrastructure on Westminster Bridge, apparently on the basis of a belief that ‘cyclists’ will pose a risk to the safety ‘vulnerable road users’.

The safety of ‘cyclists’ themselves plainly isn’t a consideration here; as far as Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital Trust is concerned, anyone cycling, young or old, disabled or able-bodied, will just have to lump it on the road, because a failure to provide bus stop bypasses on Westminster bridge means people cycling mixing with heavy motor traffic. People cycling like this gentleman –

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 11.42.26

Or this lady –

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 11.42.39Or this couple.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 11.43.29Concern for the safety and comfort of ordinary people is jettisoned as soon as they start cycling, because they’ve become ‘cyclists’, a pathologised group, pathologised in precisely the same way ordinary football fans became ‘hooligans’.

It’s deeply, deeply damaging, and it needs to stop.


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22 Responses to Hooligans

  1. Perhaps it’s also how drug users are seen in parts of the world, those who are just wanting help and to rectify their mistakes, those who are against them claim they should be locked up and that if they can’t do the time then they shouldn’t have done the crime. Of course the Dutch have already beaten me to the chase in how to correctly deal with those.

    There is so much wrong with the stereotype of cyclists here that I don’t even know where to begin.

    Uh, too few rules perhaps. I’d argue that in some ways cyclists have too many rules. Maybe only that there is official advice that can be used in court about helmets and high viz jackets, but those are things you cannot be fined for. Cyclists, and people in general, will do what is natural and sensible in their eyes. Drivers drive at 120-130 km/h on the motorway because that is the natural design speed. 70 was never the intended speed of the British motorway network. Cyclists turning left on a red light if there isn’t conflicting traffic are making choices that make sense, they aren’t endangering others nor themselves really by doing so.

    The Dutch make the decision to do the right thing an obvious thing to do and a naturally enforced behavior. You drive at about 130 km/h on the motorway because that is the natural speed without congestion of a road designed to it’s standards. You can make a right on red on a bicycle without worrying or breaking the law because it’s a sensible thing to do, and so is legalized.

    The tax system. Oh man is this incorrect. A, people riding bicycles are doing by far more good than harm or costs. It is cheaper than free in the long run to build cycle infrastructure believe it or not. They already paid a sales tax on the bicycle by the way. Most people who ride a bicycle are also drivers, many own a car that is just happening to not be used at the time, like David, and many people own property, like a house if they can afford it. The property tax would be levied regardless, but driving a car is a privilege that we are giving to people who can afford it and prove that they are capable of operating it safely and nobody else. It’s not your right to drive a car, at least it isn’t in the Netherlands. Cyclists don’t really do damage to the road nor the environment, the main reasons why one might put a tax on cars as they do in the UK.

    And finally, “special treatment”? You do realize that given good bicycle infrastructure like those in the Netherlands, children, disabled and the elderly ride around in far greater numbers? David even operates his public tours at times when you are going to find lots of schoolchildren cycling, to show you specifically how much freedom you have on a bicycle. He even set up a special website dedicated to this.

    I think you may have a legal case to bring before a court that cyclists are actually given not equal protection, and that giving so much focus to cars creates real discrimination. Children can’t afford to drive cars of course and they aren’t usually capable of driving in the first place. Elderly people who are medically unfit have no control over their deterioration. Blind people cannot drive for obvious reasons. It’s discriminatory to create so much focus around cars and leave out so many people. Cyclists pay more in their tax bill than they should get out of it. Especially people who cycle and don’t own a car. And by creating roads that so obviously creates so much danger when we have known for the last 20 years how the Dutch solve this and for the last 10 years or so that it’s definitively worked, it may even be a violation of human rights in European law, violating the right to life. The individual driver may be at fault, but if nothing was done by the state to create so useful measures for so little money but they rejected them without genuine reason…

  2. Notak says:

    Perhaps I’m too prone to reading a particular kind of parallel into everything I read,
    Yes! Seriously, where is this popular antagonism? It’s a media thing, which they stir up for their own ends (as you discussed in your last post). Perhaps it’s found among the inhabitants of (Greater) London, which is where the media tend to be, but it’s not something most of us encounter on a personal basis, I think. Institutional dereliction, in terms of planning, law enforcement and court systems, and the finances behind them, that is a very real and serious problem.

    But it’s interesting to look at one of the stereotypes you quote – “a generalised disregard for the law” – because I’ve sometimes been encouraged by random passers-by to break the law! “What are you waiting for? [at a red light] There’s no police here, just go!”

    And from the point of view of the person on the bike: There’s a fairly quiet square here, Portland Square, which forms part of a popular cycling route to the station and various other places. It has one-way circulation, like a roundabout, but many, possibly most, cyclists ignore this. On one occasion I caught up with an “ignorer” and asked him why. He said he took the more direct route because he cycled for simplicity; cycling should be as easy as possible. Again, you’ve discussed this directly in your post about traffic lights having to “make sense” or they will be ignored (which I agree with) and it also links to the idea of “wheeled pedestrianism”.

    • It’s also mostly my experience that I don’t get so much antagonism on a personal basis from other road users, but I’m not sure if this invalidates the wider point. Surely in 1989 there were also people who didn’t have a particular problem with football fans, but what matters is not individual opinions but an institutional bias, in the media, the police and politics. And I do think you see such a bias today about cycling, clearly in the media but also there are plenty of politicians who campaign against cycle paths with the weirdest arguments, and police officers dismissing reports of dangerous driving because the cyclist also somehow wasn’t perfect. This needs to be addressed.

      We are fortunate that in Edinburgh this institutional bias has mostly disappeared, there is a lot of political support for cycling, and even the local Evening News now has more and more articles quite positive about cycling (but don’t read the comments..). So change is possible, but so far it seems to be a local development in some cities like Edinburgh and Leicester, but not everywhere.

  3. Pingback: Hooligans

  4. danielegatti says:

    I have complained to the BBC about the show you refer to (Sunday Politics), and this is what they replied:

    The film was very clearly introduced by host Jo Coburn as being writer and broadcaster Janet Street-Porter’s own personal take on the pertinent and current question of whether the transformation of our cities for cyclists has gone too far. As Janet herself clearly explained afterwards, the film was based on an earlier comment piece she’d written for a newspaper, thus the views were clearly her own and not those of the BBC.

    That said, Janet explained at the outset of the subsequent studio discussion that she likes cycling herself, she owns a bike and is pro-cycling. Her central point was about the cycling superhighways which have been introduced in London and elsewhere, which she herself felt tipped the balance too far in favour of cyclists thus to the detriment of other road users.

    Allied to this were the actions of some – not all – cyclists in terms of demonstrably not obeying the rules of the road and causing danger and inconvenience to other road users. Janet didn’t say cyclists caused traffic congestion but rather that road works for the cycling superhighways did, and the point was made that even with the superhighways many cyclists still used regular roads, hence their efficacy was questioned.

    This is a topical issue and therefore it was relevant to hear Janet’s views. In doing so, we’re not saying that hers are the only views or that we support her view or that she is right – across the BBC’s programmes we regularly cover issues surrounding cycling and traffic and therefore hear and discuss an enormous range of viewpoints.

    This was, as explained, an ‘authored’ film explaining one person’s opinions, but the crucial point to bear in mind is that we then went on to discuss the matter openly and fully in the studio where Janet was pressed and challenged on her views, and we heard at length and in detail from London’s former Cycling Commissioner himself as well as a former Shadow Transport Minister thus ensuring a wide range of views were heard and all the pertinent points discussed.


    1 – They might have SAID it was a opinion piece, but it still LOOKED like a report. One might have tuned it during it and would never had know the difference. More importantly, there was no matching piece of video portraying a different view.

    2 – The author of said piece did not produce any evidence to back up any of her claims, and the presenter did not call her up on it. In fact, one of them was patently false (“cyclists do not have to obey road rules”) and again, Ms Coburn didn’t say anything about it.

    3 – Gilligan did try to bring up actual facts, i.e. data collected by TfL about road use, and was repeatedly interrupted by both Ms Porter and the Tory from the 1950s sitting next to her. Again, the presenter did sod all to prevent this from happening or stop it.

    All in all, rubbish “information” but lots of hysterics.

    • Terry says:

      Would they put some uninformed person on air now to give her evidence-free opinion about how badly behaved football fans cause disasters? Would they think it OK as long as it was just a ‘personal take’? Somehow I think not.

  5. Shane Foran says:

    And this is why we need to be very careful about how we frame requests for “infrastructure” or infrastructural “improvements”. The staff in the agencies providing the infrastructure may be informed by attitudes to cycling and cyclists that are similar to the attitudes that South Yorks Police showed towards the Liverpool fans before, during and after Hillsborough. Its a bit like having the foxes in charge of the hen house.

    • Notak says:

      Everyone was saying the Foxes would be kicked out of the Hen House a year ago and now they are in charge!

  6. SteveP says:

    Controversy is the lifeblood of columnists and past-their-prime politicians. JS-P parallels Dorothy Rabinowitz, a NYC journalist, with a two-year lag.

    The Colbert Report covered it well


  7. SimonS says:


    I used to manage an NHS complaints team, and can confirm that any ‘potential patient’ ie anyone can make a formal complaint about an NHS trust.

    The actions of this organisation are in direct opposition to public health. I recently cycled to my hospital appt at St Thomas’ on a Boris Bike as there was no other way for me to get there from the station that was fast enough and that didn’t require me to walk more than is comfortable for me. It was so scary on the road around that roundabout, that I ended up having to cycle on the footpath and make use of the ghastly ‘infrastructure’ there currently is, which is a tiny strip of cycle lane and a Toucan crossing. The road around the hospital is dominated by very fast moving motor traffic and the air quality is lethal. The current location of the hospital makes in inaccessible to many patients unless you happen to live on a bus route that stops in front of it. Having shared-use footpaths next to the hospital like at present is dangerous for everyone – segregated cycle tracks are much clearer and safer for everyone.

    The Trust should be fully supporting these long-overdue improvements, not giving voice to a prejudiced senior member of staff in a way that will harm patients and staff of the trust.

    Send an email to: complaints2@gstt.nhs.uk and state that as a current/ potential patient you want to make a formal complaint (if you don’t, they’ll probably pass it to PALS – patient advice – and it won’t be recorded as a complaint). Trusts get few formal complaints so even if just a few of us write, it will make a big impact on their stats, which their board will be informed about.

    If they don’t respond well, we can take them to the Health Service Ombudsman as this is totally unjustifiable behaviour. And Omdusman reports are laid before Parliament 😉

    Go get em!

  8. ORiordan says:

    I can understand where the writer is coming from in terms of parallels between different “out groups”.

    However maybe where the analogy breaks down is there were genuine and serious anti-social elements amongst football fans during the 1980s. Is there equivalency between the organised hooligan “firms” that contributed to the public perception of fans and scofflaw cyclists going through red lights? (particularly given scofflaw drivers break as many traffic laws as well..)

  9. John Stevenson says:

    Aaronovitch has exhibited exactly these prejudices about cyclists on Twitter. All the self-awareness of a concussed bee.

    • Downfader says:

      He’s a populist. The public opinion has changed and he hopes to ride the tide. The public opinion hasnt changed on cycling/cyclists and so he feels perfectly ok with being a prick about them

  10. Great work, I’ve tried not to use the word ‘Cyclist’ for a long time. Maybe its a good reason for CTC to change its name!

  11. Har Davids says:

    The one important thing that’s usually omitted is, that cars greatly contribute to the terrible air-quality of our cities, something you can’t blame the cyclists for. Sure, some cyclists are idiots, but each and everyone of poisons the air around us when driving a car, idiot or not.

    • Mark Williams says:

      Many motoring supremacists do claim that cycling, in and of itself, cause air pollution. These people are often not terribly bright, but there are a lot of them :-(. The slightly less unhinged ones pretend that cycling infrastructure `forces’ them to cause it—the extremists attack them for making even that admission and climate change denialists then attack both for acknowledging that there is such a thing! It is all just transference, of the `cyclists always go through red motor traffic lights’ ilk. They do the same with all manner of disbenefits that arise from motoring and do not let truth or logic get in the way of persecution.

  12. Downfader says:

    It took 20 years for football the recover from this hooligan slur forced upon them from the media and the politicians. Sadly cycling doesn’t have that time and is on more of a knife edge due to our limited numbers. Football, at least, had the benefit of continuing popularity. Cycling as sport and as urban utility has ebbed and flowed into the consciousness of the ordinary public over the years.

    The lycra attraction has happened as it is seen as a uniform solidarity, something to identify with like minds and make yourself feel better about your choice. Ordinary clothes, whilst just as capable for 90% of utility riding, does not single out a person as someone who might otherwise understand the commitments and trivialities you yourself might encounter.

  13. Eric D says:

    “Through 27 years of stress and trauma, we have led the way for others seeking truth and justice for ordinary people. That is our legacy”

  14. Eric D says:

    I knew I’d come across Aaronovitch before:
    I see WordPress ‘Related Posts’ widget has linked to these, just thought I’d make it explicit.
    Interesting to review all 3 in context!

  15. rdrf says:

    Congratulations on an excellent post. I don’t think you spend too much looking at parallels at all – although I would say that because I have been doing it for nearly 30 years!

    There have been some improvements with some people thinking cycling is OK. Also, I can remember all the prejudices against people who cycle in the 1980s – well before RLJing and adult pavement cycling being issues raised – BUT there is still plenty of bigotry/prejudice/double-standards.

    I think there are two important points to be made about this bigotry.

    ONE: The thing to . notice about this prejudice is not just its inhumanity as an attitude, but how it can exacerbate danger to fellow human beings on the road. My point is that acceptable driver behaviour requires a positive and self-critical attitude towards other road users. Any kind of bigotry towards another group where you are near them in charge of dangerous machinery is, well, dangerous. It is far worse than a case of being discourteous towards, say, the relatives of people who have been killed on bicycles.

    TWO: Re-the parallel with other “out groups”: there is always the argument that being on a bicycle is a choice as opposed to something inherent in your being. But then so is driving a car, and particular the way drivers can and often do drive. There is no reason to not tackle the danger from motoring as we do in the workplace, or air,sea and rail travel.

    People who do or want to cycle, cyclists, wannabe cyclists, whatever – all have every reason to challenge attitudes they can and do suffer from.

  16. Pingback: Hooligans | As Easy As … ) May, 2016

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